Advertisers must ensure that valuable audiences aren’t being inadvertently excluded by crude keyword blocking, according to IAB UK’s Tina Lakhani.

Effectiveness is, arguably, the bedrock of our industry. From ad plans to awards, our understanding of effectiveness is fundamental to fuelling ad investment, shaping creativity and, ultimately, measuring success.

But, while effectiveness remains – and always will be – central to advertising, what about the other ‘e’? I’m talking about ethics. In short, the core values that brands uphold and which are increasingly shaping how they operate within the digital space.

For many brands today, enshrining ethics at the heart of commercial decisions is a core part of their identity, and 2020 further deepened our collective understanding of what ethical advertising encompasses and why it is so important.

The past year has been both unique and unpredictable. From the outbreak of the pandemic to the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, we experienced significant moments of cultural change. For advertisers, it was a year that brought opportunities, challenges and, above all, highlighted that brands need to stand for something more than just a commodity. Even for those businesses that have an evolved and comprehensive ethical identity, 2020 asked the same question of all in our industry: are we doing enough?

More than ever, companies are asking themselves key questions and being held to account if they get it wrong. Do your ad campaigns represent our diverse society? Do your industry partners uphold the same core values as you? Are you bringing an ethical approach to your use of consumers’ data? And what is your advertising funding?

COVID-19 news avoidance and keyword blocking

This last point, in particular, was brought into stark relief in 2020. COVID-19 saw advertisers flee association with stories about the pandemic – just as the value of online news came to the fore like never before, and the UK government dubbed the press a ‘fourth emergency service’. Meanwhile, stories about Black Lives Matter saw keyword blocking surge, with Vice Media reporting that CPMs for protest stories were 57% lower than for other coverage.

It doesn’t take much to work out the impact that this could – and is – having on news publishers and the diversity of our online ecosystem. In 2019, Gay Star News temporarily closed down as a result of not being able to monetise its content due to keyword blocking practices, and LGBTQ+ titles still face having more than 70% of their stories flagged as ‘brand unsafe’.

For advertisers, this issue poses fundamental questions and the opportunity to stand for something more. It’s not just about knowing your core values, but also understanding how they are translating into your digital strategy and what that says about your brand.

So what practical steps should advertisers be taking? Ensuring that all teams have a thorough and confident understanding of company values is fundamental, as is evaluating any downstream partners against company principles and making sure agencies are well-versed in what it is the brand stands for – and what that means for everything from advertising creative to media placement.

A more considered approach to brand safety

From a digital-specific perspective, advertisers need to adopt a more nuanced and considered approach to brand safety strategies.

It’s crucial that brands work closely with the publishers they actively want to support, as well as with content verification providers, to regularly review the agreed approach via an ethical lens – ensuring that valuable environments and audiences aren’t being inadvertently excluded, and that environments that are being included positively support brand values.

Undoubtedly there has been a lot of progress in this space – with conversations around brand safety deepening into an awareness of how advertisers’ values are reflected in media choices – but, in my view, more needs to change. If you’re not already, it’s time to ask yourself how the media choices you’re making are having an impact beyond our industry. Where advertisers are investing does have a very real effect on the sustainability of our diverse web and, as a result, on our society.

By upholding offline values in the online space, brands are embracing the enormous power they have in shaping both social norms and our day-to-day lives. They are enriching both their brand identities and the digital ecosystem they are supporting. And, by prioritising ethics in line with effectiveness, they are bridging the gap between the two and often finding that an ethical approach is driving positive business performance.

Funnily enough, taking an ethical approach pays off in more ways than one.

You can find IAB UK’s Content Verification Guide here.